If you were to pinpoint a moment when adaptive fashion was given a game-changing spotlight, it was Tommy Hilfiger X Zendaya’s 2019 capsule collection. The collaboration featured 10 styles made especially for people with disabilities, with adaptive modifications like magnetic closures and elasticated waists. More than just an on-trend collection — it signalled a shift in how functional fashion for disabled bodies was perceived by the wider fashion industry.
“That was a pivotal moment,” says Stephanie Thomas, a disabled fashion stylist living in LA who has almost 30 years of experience in the space. Thomas is the founder of Cur8able, a styling company through which she developed the Disabled Fashion Styling System™, a framework in which she consults for brands wishing to enter the space, styles disabled clients, and advocates for more inclusive adaptive clothing options.
Most commonly, adaptive fashion swaps buckles and zips for magnetic or velcro closures and slip-on designs. “It’s about removing those restrictive barriers in design, and making sure that it’s accessible, that it’s easy to put on and take off, that it’s smart for people’s health, and it won’t damage them,” says Thomas. “It should work with someone’s body type and their lifestyle and the most important thing—we should love it.” The market for adaptive fashion is largely untapped, even though it has an expected global value of $349.9 billion by 2023, according to CoreResearch. “You don’t have to do deep research to see that people with disabilities are one of the largest, most intersectional minority groups in the world,” says Thomas. “But there’s $300 billion dollars on the table, just because people don’t understand disability.”
“Every time I look around, pets are still a more desirable fashion customer than people with disabilities,” she says. “So, I can buy pet clothing, but if I were a parent of a child in a wheelchair, I couldn’t have my child go into the fitting room and try clothing for sitting?”
Before the dawn of online shopping, disabled people often relied on catalogues to buy adaptive clothing. Despite some improvements, there’s still a long way to go before adaptive fashion becomes ubiquitous in clothing stores. “We have the Americans with Disabilities Act, so people can go into stores because of ramps, or go into fitting rooms because they’re wheelchair accessible, but for people who use wheelchairs for mobility, there are no stores that commit retail real estate to having pieces that are designed for sitting,” Thomas says.
If ever there was a case for greater accessibility to adaptive fashion, it’s this: “Anyone can become a person with a disability at any moment — people get injured all the time,” says Thomas. “So don’t do it because you owe us, do it because it’s smart business. You don’t know when you’re going to wake up one day and your shoulder is giving you trouble, but when you remove unnecessary fasteners and restrictions to dressing, it equals it for everyone.”
So why are brands dragging their feet? “When I used to work with brands, they wanted to know the language and understand how to talk about disability, but they weren’t taking a step back to see disability as a culture,” says Thomas. “Then they make decisions about disability without talking to the disabled because they don’t know how to talk to the disabled. Start including them in your campaigns, but don’t do a special disability campaign, include them as spokespeople for your companies. We want to see a wheelchair on a billboard.”
In some ways, the pandemic’s loungewear boom has helped those who need adaptive fashion choices. “Look at last year, what became the most sought after pieces? Sweatpants,” says Thomas. “I wrote a piece [on Cur8able] that said this is the gateway to adaptive clothing. Because that is what every occupational therapist and every physical therapist tells people with injuries and disabilities to wear — they’re told to get some sweats and they don’t even care if they’re cute.” Now, of course, fashionable loungewear can be found front and centre of every fashion retailer’s offering.
The last year has provided a moment of reflection for Thomas, who is now focusing on styling through a lens of sustainability. This encourages clients not only to find clothing that suits their life, but to buy consciously, investing in higher quality clothing. “We need to be more thoughtful consumers, but when I have clients I say, let’s not waste our money on things that aren’t going to last,” she says. “I’m going to do what I have to do to honor and respect my client with a disability. Not hide them, not apologise for them, not cure them, but honour them.”
Below, we’ve found 10 independent adaptive fashion brands from around the world that are breaking barriers. As the market is still young, unfortunately, there aren’t many expressly sustainable adaptive fashion companies out there, but hopefully, that will change.
Christina Stephens is an Australian designed and made adaptive fashion brand that launched in March 2020. The loungewear basics have subtle adaptive details, like an open back design in the tops, as well as track pants that have adjustable cuffs and hidden inner pockets to hold catheter bags. The brand uses Australian organic cotton and OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified Merino wool and has a host of sustainability standards that they adhere to. It also offers extended sizing!
Slick Chicks is an adaptive underwear brand based in New York. The brand was founded by Helya Mohammadian as a response to seeing her sister struggle to put on conventional underwear after having an emergency C-section. The underwear has a patented side-fastening design that makes them easier to put on and take off for wheelchair users, pregnant women, and those who rely on caregiver dressing assistance. The company says that everything is made from nylon and spandex with cotton lining. Slick Chicks has a manufacturing partner in Sri Lanka where their pieces are made – you can read more about the factory on their website.
IZ Adaptive is a Canadian fashion brand by designer Izzy Camilleri, who discovered the lack of adaptive options available when she started creating custom clothing for a friend, a wheelchair user, in 2004. Every piece in the collection is designed in Toronto for a seated body, with an emphasis on stretch fabrics, flat seams that don’t irritate the skin, side openings and magnetic closures. The pieces are made locally and off-shore.
Friendly Shoes was founded by occupational therapist Joseph DiFrancisco who noticed that many of his patients didn’t have the mobility to put on conventional shoes. He created a patented zipper system that can be closed single-handedly at the side of the shoe but is designed to look like any other sneaker on the market. (FriendlyShoes doesn’t share information about where their products are made.)
So Yes is a Belgian adaptive fashion brand founded by two occupational therapists, Jessie Provoost and Sofie Ternest, who saw first-hand how difficult getting dressed could be for people at the rehabilitation centre they worked in. They now create everything from jackets with magnetic zip closures, to trousers and skirts designed for wheelchair users. (When it comes to materials and manufacturing, the brand doesn’t share any information.)
Ffora (Fashion For All) is an accessories brand for mobility devices, created by Parsons graduate Lucy Jones in 2012. Ffora’s proprietary attachment system clamps onto wheelchairs and acts as a docking station that accessories like bags, water bottles and cup holders can lock into. The brand’s focus is on minimal yet functional design in bright colours. (Ffora doesn’t share any information about their manufacturing location.)
Care+Wear was founded in 2014 to create healthcare clothing that is centred around giving patience, dignity and comfort during medical treatments. From a hoodie designed in collaboration with Oscar De La Renta, to a patient gown designed by Parsons School of Design, Care + Wear functional pieces are inspired by fashion. Because their pieces are made for patients, Care + Wear’s clothing is made from EPA-approved antimicrobial treated fabric. (There’s no information available about the manufacturing location of Care+Wear clothing.)
Yarrow is the in-house clothing line of adaptive e-commerce platform, Juniper Unlimited, which was founded by disabilities advocate Sinead Burke and adaptive designer Maura Horton. Yarrow offers contemporary womenswear designed with magnetic closures and velcro fastenings, as well as trousers specifically designed for wheelchair users. (There’s no information about Yarrow’s manufacturing available.)
Founded in 2018 by three friends in the UK, Megami is a post-mastectomy lingerie and swimwear brand. After noticing a lack of stylish lingerie for post-op women, they set out to create bras with side pockets to insert prosthetic breast forms. Alongside their products, Megami also platforms women who have experienced breast cancer through their #DefyingBC series of short films. Unfortunately, the brand is only available in UK shops, but with the beautiful design, it’s definitely worth a visit or a call to one of its stockists. (Megami doesn’t share any information about their production location.)
Intimately is an American underwear brand founded by Emma Butler, whose interest in adaptive fashion came from her mom’s diagnosis of Fibromyalgia when she was 12 years old. The brand is community-led, aiming to create a safe space for disabled women to connect, share advice and experiences, and empower one another. Intimately sells side-closing underwear that is free from tags and designed with wheelchair users and pregnant women in mind, as well as bras that feature front-closing magnets and are free from underwires. (The brand doesn’t share manufacturing information.)
MIGA Swimwear is a made in LA label that is inspired by and designed to celebrate all bodies, pairing bold colours and prints with inclusive design thinking. The founder of MIGA works with a community of disabled women to “crowd-design” their swimwear, with a focus on function and versatility. When it comes to sustainability, their packing is 100% recyclable, and the swimwear is made from recycled fabrics using zero-waste manufacturing ethos.
Uniteable is a US-owned and made brand that was created after its founder, whose career was originally in fashion merchandising, became interested in adaptive fashion through her brother, an amputee. Uniteable sells a variety of pants that have in-seam zippers and pull-up loops for ease of dressing, designed with amputees and wheelchair-users in mind. They also own their own production facility in order to ensure high ethical standards in their supply chain.